Friday, May 17, 2013

Education Automation - R. Buckminster Fuller

A few months ago, in response to one of my "education" tagged blog posts, an old friend from high school contacted me via Facebook and suggested that I really should take a look at the book "Education Automation" by R. Buckminster Fuller, the famous architect. The book was published way back in 1961 and for someone without access to Doc Brown's DeLorean, it had remarkable foresight. He basically predicted the Internet, though he called it 2-way television.

The Book

The book is a slim paperback volume, only 88 pages long. It was put together at a time when Southern Illinois University was undergoing major expansion in 1961 - a transition from being a state teacher's college to being a full-fledged university. Fuller had been invited to give a talk to the committee planning the new campus. The book doesn't quite read like it is a transcript of his talk. I believe it is more like a report by Fuller of what he said.

I have to give credit to the Westbury Public Library for finding a copy of this book for me to read. They borrowed it from the library of Hartwick College way off in Oneonta, NY, about a 200 mile drive upstate from Westbury. I was tickled to notice the 1961 price of the book printed on the book's cover: $1.95. If you convert that into how many gallons of gasoline you could get for $1.95 in 1961, and then figure out what the contemporary price for that many gallons of gasoline would be, I suspect the $1.95 maps to a pretty good approximation of what a slim academic book would cost these days. The years have not been kind to the purchasing power of a dollar.

There are plenty of smells of age to be found in the book such as frequent mention of "men" where a more contemporary book would surely have said "people". And, I was surprised at how high an opinion Fuller seems to have of himself. I expect a tad more humility from great men of the past.

What did he call for?

Fuller foresaw a future in which "earning a living" was no longer required. He expected that change was going to arrive within 10 years of the time he was speaking in 1961. He expected that the only lasting world industry would be education. He anticipated that scholars would stay for years and years at the universities, "for the rest of their lives", "developing more and more knowledge about the whole experience of man".

One somewhat off-the-wall suggestion from Fuller is that a 200 foot diameter (or larger) geodesic dome be suspended 100 feet above the campus and be covered with light bulbs on the entire interior and exterior surface, each bulb under the control of a computer, so the 'Geoscope' would be a gigantic display screen. "It will make possible communication of phenomena that are not at present communicable to man's conceptual understanding." I've seen enough movies to have my doubts about any good coming from a large screen for mass viewing. Brings to mind Apple's 1984 commercial.

He clearly suggested that the university acquire as much land as it can. But forget about any permanent structure anchored to whatever the shape is of today's curriculum. Everything should be dynamic. e.g. bring in a geodesic dome via heavy-lift helicopter to serve as an auditorium whenever you need another big auditorium. Or just build a gigantic half-mile wide geodesic dome to enclose the entire campus and give people large clear spaces to do their work. "Don't waste dollars on great, heavy stone masonry and any kind of Georgian architecture."

What did he get wrong?

From my 21st century perspective, he did get some things wrong. He still seems to expect that education is something that is done by herding large groups of students into giant auditoriums. Current consensus seems to be that the Internet particularly obsoletes the large-to-the-point-of-student-anonymity lectures, replacing them with on-demand viewing of pre-recorded lectures. (e.g. MOOC's).

I wish I knew more about what they actually did there at SIU after the planning sessions. I Google searched for images of the Southern Illinois University campus and only found a few pictures, none of which seem anything like Fuller's suggestions. I'm slightly more familiar with a more recently developed college campus, Liberty University. Though I have never set foot on Liberty University's campus, we received a magazine from them a few months ago detailing their campus expansion projects. From what I can see, Liberty University initially built large warehousey "temporary" buildings, but then in more recent years has been replacing those buildings with new prettier more permanent structures.

Fuller's 1961 advice was to build with the inspiration of circus tents, not wasting money on, e.g., Georgian architectural detailing. From what I can see of the continuing development of Liberty University, they initially erected structures that were slightly more solid then circus tents, but without significant ornamentation, but more recent structures are in a style that would be fitting for colonial Williamsburg, with lots of brick and big decorative columns and with large windows consisting of many small panes. It would seem that Fuller was overlooking the role of campus buildings in inspiring pride in alumni as a stimulus to continuing generous donations. In the book, he made little mention of budget constraints. He also, despite his own involvement in campus athletics (he'd been a football quarterback in his high school years), seemed to pay no attention to the huge investments large schools seem to make in sports facilities.

I noticed that Fuller's advice seemed to pay no attention to matters of infrastructure: e.g. bathrooms and parking and/or provisions for on-campus transportation. Research labs need plumbing, fume hoods, marker boards, bookshelves (at least they still need those today), desks, chairs, network access, electricity, heating, lighting and air conditioning. Much more than just the generous amounts of space Fuller advised should be acquired and enclosed.

He had a curious fixation on a proposal for a large domed display screen that could be used to display images, charts and graphs to help the people on campus to attain a commonality in their point of view. I wonder if Leo Villareal would give any credit to Fuller for Villareal's "Cosmos" installation on the Cornell U. Johnson Art Museum. Villareal's piece makes sense of what had been a seemingly pointless architectural detail of the museum building, which building has been compared to the shape of a gigantic sewing machine.

The foreword of the book says Fuller served as a research professor at SIU. I hope he didn't get overpaid for the advice he gave but that they apparently didn't follow. If you have affiliation with SIU and can say more about what influence Fuller's suggestions had on the development of that campus, I'd sure like to hear from you in the comments.

Maybe Fuller was just way ahead of his time, but I'd have an easier time expecting a virtual campus that is spread around the world and reconfigured as different specialists get involved in a research project. A campus where there's no "there" there? Good luck figuring out where home-game sports events are going to be held. Perhaps the central feature of the physical campus will be a large Internet connected data center/online digital library to facilitate research and online collaboration by the people affiliated with the university, wherever they may be.

Oh, and I bet there'll be a lovely administration building with columns and brick and many window panes and a board room for the meetings of the trustees (who probably are going to lag on acceptance of online meetings). I'm not advocating that all future research be conducted in the researcher's home kitchen. Space (rented?) with suitable labs facilities would be acquired wherever the researcher chose to be. I foresee big demand for lab space in Hawaii. Lovely weather - especially compared to Ithaca, NY, just to name a place where you can find a conventional physical campus today.